A year ago today (tonight) we arrived in Riyadh and now, as then, I find it difficult to write about this place. Saudi Arabia is a country that makes many Americans uncomfortable: there is a lot that’s negative about the policies and enforced ways of living here that chafe against our notions of independence and freedom. And yet, the day-to-day in Saudi is much like anywhere else. We all grocery shop, send our kids to play dates and school, try on new shoes at the mall, go out for ice cream or fresh juice. I’d never defend the government nor would I presume to say I understand the way things work here; I’ve barely scratched the surface and after all I am a very temporary resident.
But I’d also say that were you to visit — not on a tourist visa, though — you might find that it’s quite a bit less scary than you imagined. Of course, being a Westerner helps. There’s a world of difference between my experience and that of someone who came here to work as a housekeeper or nanny or or or. We get to live in a pretty open diplomatic area and the U.S. embassy community has been warm and welcoming and busy. We run and walk on the trail, go to the park, get iced lattes at Starbucks. San Francisco it’s not but it’s amazing how you can learn to satisfy yourself with less. This is a lesson I probably would not have taken to heart in the Bay Area, with its dizzying array of activities indoor and out and let’s not forget all that wonderful coffee. (Some days I swear I’d happily cross five oceans for a pour over and a slice of toast at The Mill.) Conversely, you also learn to dearly appreciate how very much you do have and how fortunate you are to hold citizenship in a country that, for all its faults, is still one in which many long to settle.
A year ago today we left Morocco, traded our views of the Atlantic Ocean for those of the desert. Ten years ago this month I left Washington, DC, for San Francisco, the city where I imagined I’d settle for most if not the rest of my life. I certainly never envisioned living in a country that can test your patience and grit; those 115+-degree days are no joke. The dust settles into the windowsills and your skin is constantly dry and trying to remember daily prayer time closures can drive you batty. But this is what we are doing now. Sierra, who is 2 1/2 in a few days, probably won’t remember much of her years here beyond our house and her friends and the calico cat who lingers outside our side door in the early mornings. I do look forward to talking with her about her time here when she is older – maybe by then the country will have become more open and she could even come back for a visit (though this is a long shot).
In the past year we’ve traveled a bit, made some wonderful friends, spent our days not unpleasantly, and adjusted yet again to a new place and country. The Foreign Service life can be challenging but it encourages you to get outside your comfort zone on a daily basis and to embrace change. This is not at alla negative. When we leave Saudi next spring I don’t think I’ll be necessarily sad to go but I won’t regret the experiences of the past four years either.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was not cooking as well as I should have this winter — lots of pastas (and vegetables) and quiches and decadent cakes. These things are fine in moderation but my natural inclination is more toward vegetable proteins and whole grains and loads of fresh vegetables. I do get stumped occasionally by the lack of ingredients — kale made a regular appearance for weeks, then was gone, and I just grabbed a bit last weekend during our frantic rush through the supermarket before it closed for Friday prayers — but this is no excuse. Now that we’re on the cusp of spring I’m splurging on asparagus when I can get it and reintroducing millet and doing lots of light, produce-heavy stir-fries. More on those soon.
I’m also returning to whole grain flours in my baking, and a recent banana snacking cake used a blend of whole wheat pastry and spelt flours to utter perfection. Playing off the natural sweetness of the fruit I used mostly maple syrup with just a (optional) slight addition of sucanat to deepen the flavor. Butter was paired with peanut butter in a more wholesome base and yogurt added an extra punch of nutrition.
I can’t claim that Sierra eats every ‘healthy’ option I present to her and some nights she hardly eats all, leaving me feeling as though I’ve failed at the dinner game even as I know this is completely normal. She loves sweets as do I and when I can create something that straddles the elusive middle line between treat and nutritious I feel justified in allowing a second or third piece.
This cake is fluffy and moist, simple enough yet balanced by warming spices and a faint undertone of peanut butter. It’s easily adapted to being vegan (see head notes) and, judging by the way it disappeared this morning at play group, appealing to the younger set as well as our adult palates. Speaking of, for us grown-ups, a dusting of powdered sugar or a scoop of ‘nice cream’ alongside wouldn’t go amiss.
The temperatures are – already! – on the rise here and I envision a lot of coconut milk ice cream and fruit popsicles in our very near future. I hope to be here more frequently to report on the ongoing kitchen experiments — at the very least, I will try!
To make gluten-free, substitute your favorite g-f whole grain flour mix of choice. To make vegan, substitute 1/4 coconut oil, 1/2 cup applesauce and 1/2 cup non-dairy milk of choice.
Makes 10 servings.
1/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup maple syrup
Optional: 1/4 cup sucanat (or 1/4 cup packed light or dark brown sugar)
2 large eggs
3 medium-large very ripe bananas, mashed
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup whole fat plain yogurt
Heat oven to 350°F. Grease a square baking pan with butter.
In a large bowl, beat the butter, peanut butter, maple syrup and sucanat if using until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in bananas and vanilla.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt, cardamom, and ginger. Add to the creamed mixture alternately with the yogurt, beating well after each addition.
Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 25-35 minutes, checking after 25 minutes, until cake is lightly browned but not too dry. Remove from oven and place on a wire rack to cool thoroughly.